By Preston Wilder
I’d quite happily take a cut in my (already modest) salary if I could write about films like The Dinner every week, instead of sequels and superheroes. This is not to say the film is great: it’s bloated, overloaded, and ends up as a bit of an endurance test. But it hones in on people (the normal kind, i.e. without special powers), deals in dramaturgy and character-building, and throws in a handful of choice observations on the way we live now.
The premise recalls Carnage, from a few years ago: two married couples meet up – in this case for dinner in a fancy restaurant – and the veneer of civilised discussion gradually breaks down as they deal with a moral dilemma, the problem having to do with their respective children. Carnage named the bone of contention right away, The Dinner plays a waiting game – but we know the (teenage) kids must be involved because we keep cutting back to them. We actually open on the youngsters, enjoying a truncated night-out in what may be the high point of the whole movie: in about two dozen quick cuts – people smoking, chatting, hanging out – writer-director Oren Moverman (adapting a novel by Herman Koch) distils the essence of a mildly-louche teenage party in about a minute of screen time. It’s a wonderful kick-start.
If only the rest of the film were equally light on its feet. The flaw in The Dinner isn’t a question of dialogue or acting (scene by scene, the film is written and performed with tremendous vigour), it’s a question of balance. This kind of dramatic four-hander always has one character who’s a bit unstable, and acts as a catalyst for the mask of politeness to be ripped off; in Carnage it was the obnoxious husband played by Christoph Waltz, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? it was Martha, the cynical slattern played by Elizabeth Taylor. In this case it’s Paul (Steve Coogan), husband to Claire (Laura Linney) and younger brother of Stan (Richard Gere) who in turn is married to Katelyn (Rebecca Hall). Paul is obsessed with the question of social decline, teems with resentments, and doesn’t want to go to the stupid dinner in the first place. He’s an awkward customer (literally so, once they get to the restaurant) with a tendency to babble when stressed – but in fact he’s too much, too hostile, too impossible, and throws the whole movie off-balance.
Some of this is sharp character detail: Paul, for instance, is the kind of stubborn Luddite who’ll refuse to Google when he can’t remember something, driving himself (and other people) nuts until the forgotten factoid comes to him (“F**k Google!” he crows triumphantly). Paul is the kind of tiresome moralist – a former history teacher – who rails against technology, and today’s short attention spans (“History is over. Everything is happening in this second”) and cretinous pop-culture and “the orgy of mind-numbness they call Hollywood”. But the script loves him too much, and he takes over everything – significantly, the only way Moverman can play a big scene between Stan and Claire is to have Paul withdraw to the back of the frame, like an actor in a play going offstage for the duration – especially since The Dinner doesn’t just stay on the claustrophobic dinner. We get flashbacks to other intense moments, most of them expressed in Big Speeches, the film getting nuttier and more melodramatic as it goes along. “We have had a history of mental illness in this family,” admits Stan near the end – but in fact that line might’ve been more helpful had it come an hour earlier.
Is that all? Not remotely. We haven’t even mentioned the bizarre, near-abstract Gettysburg montage (or dream?) about halfway through – Gettysburg, for the uninitiated, was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War – or the way Gettysburg is also symbolic of Paul’s nervous breakdown, “the beginning of the end” for the Confederacy having been ‘the beginning of the end’ for him too, which in turn leads to the awful suspicion that Moverman may be using civil war itself (a war … between brothers!) as a kind of symbol. We haven’t mentioned what terrible thing the kids did, or the fact that Stan is a top politician constantly being interrupted by his staff, or the ladies coming through with their own Oscar moments late in the day, or Paul rehearsing some kind of speech in a classroom where he talks of families being oppressive and unloving and cruel.
“This is too much. I know. I’m sorry,” says Stan (Gere may be top-billed, but his role mostly requires him to look vexed by how badly everything is going). The film is indeed too much, not unlike the way superhero movies tend to be too much, piling on unnecessary climaxes; Hollywood should perhaps learn the value of restraint in general. Still, The Dinner isn’t empty calories. This is a showy virtuoso piece, if perhaps too intoxicated by its own virtuosity. It’s exhausting, but I didn’t really mind; there’s a lot to write about here.
DIRECTED BY Oren Moverman
STARRING Steve Coogan, Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall
US 2017 120 mins